The new study doesn't actually have much to do with genetically engineered yeast. Scientists at the University of York and the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Australia were studying poppies themselves, which are used to produce natural morphinans that can be turned into codeine and morphine.
They've discovered a gene called STORR that makes some poppy plants able to produce the opiates. They found that plants without this gene would accumulate a buildup of reticuline, indicating a bottleneck in the production pipeline. But STORR's presence allowed the poppies to carry on with production.
"There's a lot of interest because this gene we're reporting is essentially the missing link -- it represents the last uncharacterized step in morphine production," lead author Ian Graham of the University of York told The Post.
But Graham and his colleagues are more interested in making the poppies GSK already grows even better.
"You can produce something like 50 kilograms of morphine on a piece of land the size of a football pitch," Graham explained. "It's a really low cost way of producing an active pharmaceutical ingredient."
It's hard to imagine that genetically engineered yeast, which would probably produce morphine in very small quantities, could compete anytime soon. Instead, they'll be focused on studying how STORR works, and how it can be harnessed to make farm-grown production even more efficient.
STORR is a pretty interesting gene, and Graham hopes its quirkiness will unlock new secrets.
"The gene itself is very interesting," he said, "It’s a fusion, it’s two independent genes coming together and fusing to bring two enzymes together. The reaction is quite complicated, so we’re interested in the mechanism of how this gene evolved. We want to understand how the plant makes these amazing molecules. And don't forget, these are still the most effective painkillers known to humankind. It's important work."
But Graham knows that drugs from yeast are right around the bend, and it's possible they could outpace farm production one day. In the meantime, he agrees with the authors of the recent Nature paper and an accompanying commentary: Because this method of production is possible, someone somewhere will inevitably use it to create illegal narcotics, and regulators should be prepared.
"Whether or not it can ever compete commercially will be interesting to see, but I think it's a long way off," Graham said. "But it's inevitable now that the technology and knowledge base is out there that such an organism will be developed."